As tension simmers in Ladakh, China may look to exploit NE India insurgent groups for intelligence, create fifth column
With the ongoing problem with China which has also seen heightened activities and mobilisation of Chinese troops in the eastern sector, the Chinese will desire more tactical and strategic information from the North East based insurgent groups.
One fine morning during the height of the Doklam crisis in 2017, I got a call from a senior ULFA leader (United Liberation Front of Assam). It took me some time to recognise his voice though he had rung me a couple of times since 1998. A journalist friend had helped to establish contact with ULFA leader with the objective to motivate ULFA to give up arms and commence talks with the government. However, I could do little.
He spoke to me in my mother tongue Assamese “Are you aware that last night 73 Indian soldiers were killed due to precession artillery fire by the Chinese army?" He further told me that the incident had been widely covered in Global Times as well as in newspapers published from Bangladesh.
I was taken aback. Such major news could not have gone unnoticed in our country especially from the media. Neither had our government said anything about such an incident. He reiterated that it was very credible information and he cut the lines. He also advised me to share the news with my media friends.
My instant reaction was that it was fake news. It was propaganda and rumour that the Chinese wanted to spread through the insurgent organisation. It was not the first time that the Chinese and Pakistan intelligence agencies were using insurgents to acquire tactical and strategic information or trying to sell their propaganda in exchange for providing arms and safe sanctuaries for the North East insurgents.
I remember during the time of Operation Parakram (mobilisation of the Indian Army consequent to Parliament attack by LeT terrorists on 13 December 2001), Pakistan ISI was desperately looking for details of an infantry brigade which had moved to Jammu and Kashmir from the North East. ULFA supremo Paresh Baruah had rung up his contacts at Dimapur railway station as well as other contacts to obtain the information.
The Chinese connection with the North East insurgents was first established in January 1967 when the first group of Naga insurgents led by Thuingaleng Muivah (who is presently leading the talks with the Government of India) crossed over to China through Pangwa pass(bordering Myanmar) and reached Yunnan province of China.
It took the group three months of walking across the hills and jungles of Nagaland. The group had to face a number of attacks by the Myanmarese army. The Mizo rebels was the second group who went across to China in 1972. Manipuri insurgent groups went to Tibet to receive arms training. The Manipuri insurgents were so inspired by the Chinese that they named their organisation after the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), the name of the Chinese army. In fact, the political philosophy as well as the army set up most of the insurgent groups from the North East, are based on the communist literature and thinking.
The Chinese are not only looking for tactical and strategic information but also are attempting to use the insurgents as their fifth columnist. The ULFA has recently circulated a long propaganda video supporting the Chinese in the ongoing Indo-China standoff in Eastern Ladakh. Similarly, the ULFA while operating from Bangladesh supported illegal infiltrations from that country to North East India on the behest fundamentalist Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Pakistani ISI.
Though the Chinese around the 1980s had stopped providing arms training to the North East insurgent groups they continued providing arms to them with the help of Chinese middlemen and transborder smugglers. Interrogation of apprehended insurgents brought out these aspects.
Anthony Shimray, the commander of Alec Command (Foreign Command) of the NSCN(IM), who was arrested in 2010 revealed that the Chinese had even offered the group SAM missiles. In return, the Chinese wanted information of Indian armed forces deployment, particularly of strategic missiles and aircraft. Shimray had first visited China in 1998 along with NDFB (National Democratic Front of Bodos) insurgents to make a deal for 1800 weapons.
The biggest recovery of Chinese made weapons was made when Bangladesh Rapid Action Force (RAF) seized huge consignments of arms in 2003 from Chittagong. These arms were procured by ULFA leader Paresh Baruah from China.
Since round 2010, China’s interest in the North East has been rekindled. Has the Chinese got the desired support from the NE insurgent groups whom they have been helping with arms, ammunition and shelter? Important leaders of almost all the North East insurgent groups have safe sanctuary in Rulie, a buzzing town on Yunnan province bordering Myanmar.
During the interrogation of RK Meghan (the leader of UNLF, a Manipur-based insurgent group) who was arrested in 2010, he revealed that the Chinese have asked all the insurgents group to form an umbrella organisation and raise the strength to 20,000 for getting the Chinese support. However, due to variety of factors like ideologies, tribal loyalty, intrastate and inter-state problems and many other differences among various insurgent organisations (there are more than 70 organisations), the unity among insurgent groups has not worked out and not likely to materialise in the future.
The first attempt to unite various insurgents groups (including a few from Myanmar) was the formation of the Indo Burma Revolutionary Front (IBRF). The last effort in this direction was the formation of United Liberation Front of West South East Asia (ULFWSEA) in 2015 headed by then NSCN(K) chairman Khaplang(a Hemi Naga from Myanmar). This organisation consisting of nine insurgent groups including ULFA had carried out a major ambush against the army unit 6 Dogra on 3 June 2015 at Chandel district of Manipur (bordering Myanmar)r killing 20 army jawans and injuring 11 others. In retaliation, the army had carried out a surgical strike at the Indian insurgents’ camp inside Myanmar on 9 June killing and apprehending a large number of insurgents.
Besides supporting the NE insurgent groups, China had provided ideological support to the Naxalite movement in the initial years of their raising in the early 1970s. With the ongoing problem with China which has also seen heightened activities and mobilisation of Chinese troops in the eastern sector, the Chinese will desire more tactical and strategic information from the North East based insurgent groups. Over the last few years, the Chinese intelligence agencies have raised a number of front organisations in Nepal for collection of intelligence as well as for anti-India activities. The existence of such organisations in other neighbouring countries as well as inside India is very likely.
Thus China will expect more support from the insurgents in form of intelligence, fifth columnist etc. In the eventuality of a war between India and China, the insurgents may be tasked for sabotage activities. But it is doubtful whether the North East insurgents have desired capability, motivation and wherewithal to please the Chinese.